Asus’ Eee PC 4G sub-notebook

We spend a lot of our time here at TR evaluating cutting-edge hardware, but not because we’re particularly drawn to extremely expensive components. Rather, it’s the fact that new technologies tend to debut at the high end before trickling downstream to more affordable mid-range parts. We also spend a great deal of time playing with those mid-range products, combing through their ranks in search for that perfect intersection of price and performance—the glorious sweet spot.

It’s a little odd, then, to be sitting in front of Asus’ Eee PC sub-notebook. With a Celeron ULV processor chugging along at 630MHz, GMA 900 integrated graphics powering a 800×480 display, 512MB of RAM, and just 4GB of internal storage capacity, the Eee PC’s specs are hardly awe-inspiring. In fact, this may be the first system we’ve ever reviewed that’s slower than Jessica Simpson.

And unlike Jessica, the Eee PC isn’t a knockout, either. So at first blush, it’s a little hard to see what all the fuss is about. Sure, the system may be a fine option for developing nations and Ugandan schools, but its appeal for enthusiasts isn’t as obvious.

I assure you, however, that it’s there. After a few weeks of quality time with the Eee PC, I’m absolutely sold on the concept and pretty enamored with Asus’ implementation. Keep reading to see why.

Size really does matter

Asus cops Apple’s all-white aesthetic for most Eee PC models, which at least in my mind, makes the system look like it belongs in a hospital or dental clinic. Years ago, PCs were ripped for being boring and beige, and this is supposed to be progress? Fortunately, the Eee PC can also be had in black. White models with pastel green, blue, and pink top panels are available, as well.

More important than the Eee PC’s visual flair is the device’s diminutive size. Measuring just 225mm wide, 165mm deep, and up to 35mm thick (8.9″ x 6.5″ x 1.4″ if you prefer multiples of the king’s forearm), the Eee PC very much resides in sub-notebook territory. Seriously, it’s tiny.

When closed, the Eee PC’s footprint is comparable to that of two CDs, which makes it easy to shove into a bag, purse, or even some larger jacket pockets. Since the system tips the scales at just 920 grams (barely more than 2lbs), it’s not a chore to lug around, either.

Opened up, the Eee PC looks even smaller. Granted, my years-old 14″ laptop is hardly a sub-notebook, but it absolutely dwarfs the Eee PC. The difference in size is worth more than just bragging rights and portability, too. When crammed into economy class in an airline, there’s rarely enough room to even open my laptop, let alone to get a decent angle to view the screen straight on. And that’s before the idiot in front of me decides to recline his seat without warning. This isn’t a problem with the Eee PC, whose modest proportions easily squeeze into tight spaces.

A visual tour

Around the left side of the Eee PC, we find a single USB port and a 10/100 Ethernet jack powered by an Atheros L2 Fast Ethernet controller. Gigabit Ethernet isn’t in the cards, unfortunately, and neither is a modem, despite the presence of a phone jack right next to the networking port. The Eee PC does offer 802.11g Wi-Fi via an Atheros AR5007EG adapter, whose range is at least as good as the wireless module in my full-sized laptop.

From the left, we can also see the Eee PC’s headphone and microphone jacks. HD audio is provided through a Realtek ALC6628 codec, and as one might expect from a budget laptop, playback quality doesn’t blow your socks off. Sound quality is adequate, though—a theme that carries throughout the Eee PC.

Over on the right-hand side of the system, the Eee PC serves up an additional two USB ports and a standard VGA output. Asus also throws in an MMC/SD memory card reader, making it easy to bolster the device’s 4GB solid-state hard drive with additional storage capacity. This expansion capability is particularly useful given the Eee PC’s lack of an optical drive.

Flipping the Eee PC over reveals its four-cell lithium-ion battery, which sits flush with the system and delivers 5,200 mAh of power. According to Asus, that’s good for three and a half hours of battery life.

Asus actually offers two different batteries across its various Eee PC models. 4G and upcoming 8G models are equipped with the same 5,200 mAh battery, while less expensive 2G and 4G Surf models come with a 4,400 mAh battery. Battery life for the latter is rated at 2.75 hours.

The most interesting element to the Eee PC’s underbelly is a plastic door that affords users access to the system’s SO-DIMM slot and a PCI Express Mini Card connector. Eee PC 4G models are equipped with 512MB of DDR2-667 memory out of the box, but it’s possible to swap in a 1GB or even 2GB memory module. When the Eee PC was first released, such a memory upgrade would have voided the device’s warranty. However, Asus has since backed away from that position, allowing users to upgrade their systems’ memory at will. It’s worth noting, however, that the Eee PC’s Linux-based operating system will apparently only see 1GB of system memory, even if a 2GB DIMM is installed.

Upgrading the Eee PC’s memory is no more difficult than doing so with a standard notebook. Swapping modules takes a couple of minutes at most, and with the current market’s ridiculously low prices, I was able to toss in a 1GB Corsair Value Select SO-DIMM for just $15.

The Eee PC’s screen pivots on a beefy hinge that feels quite a bit more solid than I had expected from a budget sub-notebook. In fact, the entire system feels surprisingly sturdy, with little flex in the chassis even when the Eee PC is held from only one corner. I can’t speak to how the Eee PC will wear over time, but at least out of the box, build quality appears to be quite good.

When open, the Eee PC looks very much like a normal laptop. Without other items in the shot above to provide reference for scale, you might even mistake it for a full-size model. Unfortunately, my camera isn’t particularly adept at dealing with this much whiteness, which is why the screen looks a little off in the picture above.

Zooming in on the screen reveals a 7″ panel with an 800×480 resolution. That’s not a lot of screen area to work with, certainly far fewer pixels than I’m used to having at my disposal, but the display itself is surprisingly bright—as good as my 14″ Dell, in fact. Driving the screen is a Graphics Media Accelerator 900 housed in an Intel 910GML chipset. Don’t expect much in the way of pixel-pushing horsepower; this system isn’t built for performance, let alone gaming.

It is built to do a little bit of everything, though, which is why you’ll find a 0.3 megapixel webcam nestled along the top edge of the screen. Capture quality is adequate for video chat and easily better than some YouTube feeds, which is about what we’d expect from an integrated webcam with so few megapixels

On either side of the screen, you’ll find the Eee PC’s integrated speakers. Like most speakers on laptops of this size, sound quality isn’t particularly good. What’s more annoying, however, is that the speakers create a border around the screen that’s about an inch and a half thick. This border makes the screen feel more cramped than it actually is, as if the speakers were robbing you of screen real estate.

Sadly, there’s really no solution to the thick screen border. Using a larger screen would increase the cost of the Eee PC, and shrinking the border would require shrinking the device as a whole. That actually seems like a decent idea until you look at the Eee PC’s keyboard, which is quite small. Asus has managed to squeeze in all the important keys, but the keys themselves are much smaller than on a standard keyboard.

To give you an idea of just how small the keys are, here’s how a Canadian quarter (which is the same size as a US quarter) compares.

For my clumsy Neanderthal hands and their thick, stubby fingers, the Eee PC’s keyboard feels more than just a little cramped. It’s not unusable, mind you, and I’d far rather use a cramped normal keyboard than the even-smaller keyboards found on some Internet appliances. However, it takes careful concentration and a little practice to get up to any kind of speed. And even after weeks of practice, I still end up hitting the Enter key instead of the apostrophe about 50% of the time.

Interestingly, a friend of mine who isn’t the most proficient typist tried the keyboard and had no problems adapting. If you just hunt and peck, adjusting the smaller keys should be much easier than if you’re used to touch typing at 100 words per minute.

Power comes to the Eee PC via what is quite possibly the smallest plug I’ve ever seen bundled with a laptop. This isn’t so much a power brick as, perhaps, a power stone. Heck, it doesn’t even have a ground line. Don’t think Asus is skimping, though; the cable attached to the power plug is a whopping 10 feet in length.

The Eee PC can get away with such a modest power plug because it really doesn’t have much in the way of power-hungry components under the hood. Processing duties are handled by an “Ultra Low Voltage” Intel Celeron M 353 with a TDP of just 5W. However, that TDP refers to the chip’s power consumption at its normal 900MHz core clock speed. The Eee PC runs the chip at just 630MHz using a 70MHz front-side bus instead of the standard 100MHz, which should drop processor power consumption even further.

In addition to the power cable, Asus bundles the Eee PC with a neoprene carrying case that has an unmistakable new wetsuit smell. The case isn’t particularly fancy, but it’s nice to have one included that fits the Eee PC’s diminutive dimensions. This form factor hasn’t yet spawned a wealth of aftermarket cases.

Linux under the hood

Likely due to a combination of the Eee PC’s budget price tag and modest hardware, the system comes pre-loaded with a version of the Xandros Linux distribution. This OS boots cold in just 28 seconds and comes back to life from standby in only eight seconds, making it quicker than my own considerably more powerful desktop.

The OS includes a decent range of applications, making the Eee PC ready for just about everything right out of the box. By default, the Internet tab loads up first, giving users quick access to a Firefox web browser, shortcuts to various web mail sites, instant messenging, a Skype client, and even a direct link to Wikipedia. Here we also find the Eee PC’s Wi-Fi network browser, which had no problems detecting and connecting to several different wireless networks I tried.

When it’s time to work, the Eee PC serves up an appropriately-named tab that houses a PDF reader, file manager, email client, and even a dictionary. More importantly, it also includes OpenOffice’s Writer, Calc, and Impress applications for documents, spreadsheets, and presentations, respectively.

Neatly illustrating Asus’ desire to have the Eee PC find its way into the hands of students, the OS includes a Learn tab with a periodic table, math and language apps, and a rudimentary image creation tool. Interestingly, Wikipedia is filed under the Internet tab rather than this one.

Here’s the Play tab, which includes a selection of basic games, webcam and recording apps, and the Eee PC’s media player. The games aren’t particularly interesting, but you’ll no doubt end up using the media player, which had no trouble playing back MP3s or DivX-encoded movies. Oddly, though, it doesn’t seem to like playing movies shared over network drives.

If you want to do a little fiddling, the Settings tab is roughly equivalent to Windows’ Control Panel. There’s a little of everything here, including and Add/Remove Software option that will automatically grab software and BIOS updates from the Internet. The automatic BIOS updating feature is particularly slick, definitely a good idea for a system with mainstream appeal.

Here are few screenshots of some of the Eee PC’s bundled applications:

TR loaded up in Firefox

BIOS updates with the click of a button

Eee PC file management should be comfortable for anyone used to Windows Explorer

OpenOffice Writer stepping in for Word…

With Calc handling Excel duties

OS choices abound

The Eee PC’s operating system is plenty functional for most users and particularly well-equipped for students, but it’s not Windows, which limits application compatibility and introduces a bit of a learning curve. Fortunately, there are alternatives. Because the Eee PC runs on standard PC hardware, you can slap on the Linux distribution of your choice. Asus also endorses running Windows XP and provides all the necessary drivers on a support DVD that comes in the box. Enterprising hax0rs have even managed to get Vista and OS X running on the Eee PC, as well.

For most folks, Windows XP will probably be the most logical operating system alternative for the Eee PC. Installation is a breeze if you have access to a USB optical drive, and even if you don’t, Windows can be installed using a couple of USB thumb drives. The process takes a few hours, particularly if you plan on stripping XP’s bloat with something like nLite, but it should be relatively easy thanks to numerous online tutorials that specifically target the Eee PC.

With Windows installed, the Eee PC provides an instant comfort zone for those unfamiliar with Linux or other alternative operating systems. I prefer it to the native OS, not because the pre-installed distro is inadequate in any way, but simply because I’m comfortable with Windows and have a few favorite applications that I’d rather not do without.

Not only has Asus made it easy to install the operating system of your choice on the Eee PC, but they’ve also provided a handy reset button if you change your mind. If you should somehow botch a Windows install or otherwise decide you’d rather run the native Linux OS, restoring the Eee PC to its original form can be done with utilities provided on the support DVD and a USB thumb drive.

Using the Eee PC

Given the Eee PC’s modest hardware specs, performance was my first concern. Applications don’t exactly spring into action with only 630MHz of Celeron power under the hood, and there’s a noticeable pause when you double click on files or apps before they launch. Interestingly, this was the case with both the Eee PC’s native Linux-based OS and with Windows XP.

Coming from the buttery smoothness of a multiprocessor system, you’ll definitely notice the lack of snappiness. Even my mother, who normally works on an Athlon 64 3500+, commented that the Eee PC was a little sluggish. Once applications and files are loaded, however, the Eee PC feels, well, fast enough. As long as you don’t load the system up with too much multitasking, performance is more than acceptable for web browsing, email, instant messaging, and mucking about with office applications.

My second concern with the Eee PC was the size of its keyboard; I have short, thick fingers that don’t deal well with smaller keys. Even my mother, who has thin, lady fingers, found the keyboard too cramped for quick touch typing. She was particularly perturbed by the location of the up arrow key, which is where shift should be. Mom also commented that the keys weren’t overly sensitive—a good thing, in my mind, since it cuts down on accidental keystrokes. But then I like a little clickety-clack in my keyboards.

There’s really no getting around the keyboard size issue, but if you don’t expect to bust out 100 words per minute, it’s perfectly usable. I far prefer a cramped normal keyboard to non-standard designs found on UMPCs and Internet appliances like Nokia’s web tablet, anyway. And the Eee PC keyboard’s small size shouldn’t faze children, either.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the Eee PC has a bit of a theme going. Most elements of the system are limited but usable, and that extends to the screen. Resolution is the real killer here, particularly because web sites are typically designed with more than 800×480 pixels in mind. So you spend a lot of time scrolling, but surprisingly, not much time squinting. The Eee PC’s screen quality is at least on par with that of my older Dell laptop, making it easy to read in all but outdoor light.

We expected most of the Eee PC’s limitations given its dimensions and specs. One area where we were a little surprised was battery life. With its native Linux OS, the Eee PC’s battery life seemed to fall closer to three hours than Asus’ claimed three and a half. Under Windows, where we were able to measure battery life more precisely, the system was able to idle with Firefox displaying TR’s front page for just under three hours with the screen set at full brightness. When playing back a high quality DivX recording—which it did smoothly and without stuttering, I might add—at full screen brightness and 50% volume, the Eee PC managed two hours and 46 minutes of battery life. Even if that doesn’t quite measure up to expectations, it’s adequate, again.

Despite all its limitations, I found myself using the Eee PC quite a lot over the last few weeks, mostly from the couch in my living room, but also from bed, and inevitably, the john. The Eee PC practically lived on my coffee table, where quick Google access made it an instant argument solver. My laptop usually resides in the living room, but with the two side by side, I found myself reaching for the Eee PC far more often. I even mastered the keyboard over time, or at least became competent enough to bang out notes for articles, including this one, with little frustration. Even with the Eee PC’s smaller screen, I preferred it for surfing from the couch, particularly because of its small footprint and the fact that it barely generates enough heat to gently warm your lap.

Still, the real kicker for me is the ability to run Windows XP. The native Linux OS is perfectly functional and loaded with apps, but it isn’t a familiar environment, which feels like another compromise. In familiar Windows territory, the Eee PC is unencumbered by learning curves, leaving me far more productive with it.

Conclusions

With a low-resolution screen, cramped keyboard, anemic storage capacity, and underclocked processor, the Eee PC would be easy to write off as too limited by its underpowered hardware. Except it isn’t. Stuff all that hardware into a sub-notebook form factor that weighs less than a kilogram, and you have a device that is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Factor in another sum—the 4G’s affordable $400 price tag—and the Eee PC looks even better still.

The price is what really seals the Eee PC’s appeal. Sure, you can get a laptop with a big screen, fast dual-core processor, and gobs of storage capacity for a couple of Benjamins more. But that’s a full-sized notebook whose proportions dwarf the diminutive Eee PC. To get anything even close to the Eee PC’s size, expect to pay several times the cost of the 4G model.

Don’t think of the Eee PC as a laptop replacement, then. I’m not sure I’d even call it a sub-notebook, and it’s certainly much more than an Internet appliance. What this really is, and Microsoft will have to excuse me here, is an ultra-mobile PC—one that’s much more affordable than the tablet-style UMPCs on the market, with a real keyboard to boot.

Of the three Eee PC models currently on the market, the 4G and 4G Surf look like the best options. The latter saves you $50 by dropping the integrated webcam and 45 minutes of battery life, but depending on how you intend to use the Eee PC, that might not be a big deal. I’d stay away from the 2G Surf; with only a 2GB internal solid-state hard drive and RAM that can’t be upgraded, the 2G sacrifices a lot to hit a $300 price point.

Asus Eee PC 4G
December 2007

In the end, I can’t help but think that Asus has created a whole new class of notebooks with the Eee PC: machines inexpensive enough to compete with Internet appliances, but with the flexibility and many of the features we get from laptops, including the ability to run Windows. It’s hard to argue with that sort of value proposition, especially when it appeals to enthusiasts and mainstream users alike, which is why we’re bestowing the Eee PC 4G with our coveted Editor’s Choice award.

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